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Standard guidance for allocating healthcare resources based on cost-effectiveness recommends using different decision rules for independent and mutually exclusive alternatives, although there is some confusion around the definition of "mutually exclusive." This paper reviews the definitions used in the literature and shows that interactions (i.e., non-additive effects, whereby the effect of giving 2 interventions simultaneously does not equal the sum of their individual effects) are the defining feature of mutually exclusive alternatives: treatments cannot be considered independent if the costs and/or benefits of one treatment are affected by the other treatment. The paper then identifies and categorizes the situations in which interventions are likely to have non-additive effects, including interventions targeting the same goal or clinical event, or life-saving interventions given to overlapping populations. We demonstrate that making separate decisions on interventions that have non-additive effects can prevent us from maximizing health gained from the healthcare budget. In contrast, treating combinations of independent options as though they were "mutually exclusive" makes the analysis more complicated but does not affect the conclusions. Although interactions are considered by the World Health Organization, other decision makers, such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), currently make independent decisions on treatments likely to have non-additive effects. We propose a framework by which interactions could be considered when selecting, prioritizing, and appraising healthcare technologies to ensure efficient, evidence-based decision making.

Original publication




Journal article


Med Decis Making

Publication Date





476 - 486


cost-effectiveness, economic evaluation, health technology assessment, healthcare decision making, interactions